The Church Fathers ABCs
Imitating Christ: Preaching Thomas a Kempis
Whether the title of his book derives from the 1 Corinthians 11 is unknown, but verse 1 inescapably comes to mind. The apostle Paul writes, "Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ." It's a sentence few Christians would dare utter since the last thing we want anybody to do is model their spiritual lives after ours. It's one thing to imitate Christ, quite another to imitate Christians. Author Anne Rice made headlines a few years back by announcing that she had become a Christian; and then made headlines some time later when she announced she had changed her mind. She rejected "Christianity" in favor of "Christ" as if the Body of Christ on earth were somehow separable from Jesus himself.
This is where à Kempis can help. He writes, "Do not think yourself better than others lest, perhaps, you be accounted worse before God Who knows what is inside people. Do not take pride in your good deeds, for God's judgments differ from human judgment and what pleases people often displeases Him. If there is good in you, see more good in others, so that you may remain humble. It does no harm to esteem yourself less than anyone else, but it is very harmful to think yourself better than even one person. The humble live in continuous peace, while in the hearts of the proud are envy and frequent anger."
To imitate Jesus you have to love Jesus enough to want to do it. And this is hard. The life that Christ calls Christians to live is not the kind of life we want to live. We want a life free from hardship and death, not a life characterized by hardship and death. But Jesus was clear that to follow him meant taking up crosses. "Jesus has always had many who love His heavenly kingdom, but few who bear His cross," Thomas wrote. "All desire to be happy with Him; few wish to suffer anything for Him. Many love Him as long as they encounter no hardship; many praise and bless Him as long as they receive some comfort from Him. . . . Those, on the contrary, who love Jesus for His own sake and not for any comfort of their own, bless Him in all trial and anguish of heart as well as in the bliss of consolation. Even if He should never give them consolation, yet they would continue to praise Him and wish always to give Him thanks. What power there is in pure love for Jesus—love that is free from all self-interest and self-love!"
Cheryl Beckett was a pastor's kid who worked in Afghanistan for the past five years with women in nutritional garden projects and mother and child health. She was also one of ten Christian aid workers murdered in Afghanistan 2010. While her aid organization was deeply grieved by this senseless tragedy, they recognized that hers was by no means a life wasted. To the contrary, hers and the lives of the others who gave up so much for the sake of serving others displayed an unmistakable beauty and goodness that is an imitation of Christ.
Granted, such a perspective is not shared by all. Online comments to the report of Cheryl's death was sharp. "Countries like Afghanistan are barbaric nations made up of people whose culture is still steeped deeply into mentalities of centuries ago," one blogger wrote. "Hate to say this but they had no business going into that region. People have to want to be helped in order for this type of mission to have any kind of success." "All I ever needed to know about Islam, I learned on 9/11. The lesson? Take care of your own."
Paradoxically, such comments only verified the sacred nature of Cheryl's service, of hers and the others' radical obedience. Thomas wrote that "To carry the cross, to love the cross, to flee honors, to endure contempt gladly, to despise self and wish to be despised, to suffer any adversity and loss, to desire no prosperous days on earth—this makes no human sense. If you rely upon yourself, you can do none of these things, but if you trust in the Lord, strength will be given you from heaven."
"Blessed is she who appreciates what it is to love Jesus and who despises herself for the sake of Jesus. Give up all other love for His, since He wishes to be loved alone above all things. Affection for creatures is deceitful and inconstant, but the love of Jesus is true and enduring. Love Him, then; keep Him as a friend. He will not leave you as others do, or let you suffer lasting death. Sometime, whether you will or not, you will have to part with everything. Cling, therefore, to Jesus in life and death; trust yourself to the glory of Him who alone can help you when all others fail."
Granted, few of us will venture into the mountain villages in Afghanistan. Few will even venture into the poor or dangerous neighborhoods of our cities. But there remain plenty of opportunities to imitate Christ. For Paul, the issue was a simple one of abstaining from meat that had been part of pagan sacrifices. Eager to eat it and demonstrate that there was no power in it for those who believe in Jesus, he demurred once he discovered that others might be harmed by his freedom. As Cheryl Beckett's family wrote about her, "Cheryl loved and respected the Afghan people. She denied herself many freedoms in order to abide by Afghan law and custom."
To love Christ more than all things and imitate him will bring scorn and persecution from others. But it will also bring power to confront the darkness that resides in individuals, communities, and institutions. It will provide salt to preserve what is good, and light to show the way forward. Through the imitation of Christ, our words and deeds can make plain what is truly True and truly Good and truly Beautiful.
Daniel M. Harrell is Senior Minister of The Colonial Church, Edina, MN and author of How To Be Perfect: One Church's Audacious Experiment in Living the Old Testament Book of Leviticus (FaithWords, 2011). Follow him via Twitter, Facebook, or at his blog and website.